At a time when much of Washington was obsessed with the declassified memo that alleged wrongdoing by the FBI in its surveillance of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the administration was unveiling a nuclear weapons policy that made it clear the United States plans to begin taking a more aggressive stance toward Russia.
Broadly speaking, the Pentagon’s new policy calls for introducing two new types of weapons to the U.S. nuclear arsenal, effectively ending efforts to reduce its size. While the plan doesn’t include calls for any net increase in strategic nuclear weapons, it does warn that the United States must be realistic about the threats it faces. “We must look reality in the eye and see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis writes in the introduction to the report.
The suggestion throughout the Pentagon document is that while President Barack Obama talked about the moral obligation of leading by example to help the world get rid of nuclear weapons, other countries have been busy developing a better arsenal. “While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction,” the report says. “They have added new types of nuclear capabilities to their arsenals, increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans, and engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior, including in outer space and cyber space.”
Part of that reality check seems to be to publicly acknowledge for the first time that Russia is “developing … a new intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo.” Known as a “Status-6 Oceanic Multipurpose System” many analysts have described it as a “doomsday” weapon because it theoretically would have the capacity to destroy an entire coastal city.
The system is “essentially a drone-type device fired underwater that can potentially travel thousands of miles and strike US coastal targets such as military bases or cities,” explains CNN. The weapon would be more powerful than anything currently in the U.S. or Russian arsenal, potentially triggering a tsunami wave of radioactive water that could completely destroy a coastal city.
Some analysts, however, says a “Status-6” system might not even be a real thing. The first word of this potentially devastating system came in 2015, when a Russia state television report showed a general looking at diagrams for a new huge nuclear weapon. Some think the whole thing might have been an elaborate smoke-and-mirrors effort to put the United States on its toes. “My read of the whole Status-6 slide leak is that the Russians were trying to send us a message,” Geist says.
Even if it’s not a reality yet though, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be something in the future. And the mention in the Pentagon report shows that at least some in the defense community are taking it seriously. “My best guess is that there is there is a project to design an underwater vehicle with a purpose, unknown at this point,” Pavel Podvig, an arms control expert, told NPR. “There is something there.”